Modern Sporting Rifle: America’s Rifle

Colt Enters the Picture

After more machinations from the military’s bureaucracy, and after ArmaLite’s parent company, Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation, hit hard times financially, a decision was made to unload ArmaLite. In January of 1959 the AR-15’s design and manufacturing rights were sold to Colt for the rock-bottom price of $75,000 and a 4.5 percent royalty on future sales.

Colt’s experienced firearms engineers went to work and quickly tweaked the AR-15’s design—the biggest change they made was relocating its charging handle from under the carrying handle to the rear of the receiver. Colt then started a public-relations campaign that knocked the M14 for being too old school as they talked-up the benefits of the lighter AR-15. The AR-15, with its lighter .223-caliber round, gave an infantryman the ability to carry as many as three times the amount of ammo as a soldier carrying an M14 chambered in .308 Winchester. The original AR-15 also weighed less than 6 pounds without a magazine, whereas the M14 weighed on average 9.2 pounds when empty.

At the time lot of people thought of the .223 as a varmint round. These people didn’t think the AR-15’s chambering in the puny .223 cartridge was a good choice for the military, as the lighter caliber wouldn’t have the same stopping power as a .30-caliber round.

An article in American Rifleman in 1959 reported that “[c]aliber reduction is in line with past development. Adoption of a breech-loading rifle by the United States brought a reduction in caliber from .58 to .50 and then to .45, and adoption of smokeless powder brought a further reduction to .30. Each of these steps was accompanied by a marked increase in effective range and power. However, further caliber reduction would entail a marked reduction in range and power.[1]

The shift to the much smaller .223 cartridge almost derailed the AR-15 and might have if it wasn’t for its success in the coming Vietnam War. This caliber choice is still hotly debated. The U.S. military is continuously considering chambering its standard-issue rifles in a heavier caliber as bullet designs and propellants evolve.

In its May 1962 issue, American Rifleman reported: “It is not at all impossible to conceive of such a small bore military rifle. The United States Navy rifle was a 6 mm. (.236) for a number of years following 1895. Studies were made by most nations, including the United States, of cal. .22 military cartridges, sometimes even smaller. Rifles of cal. 6.5 mm. (.256) were adopted by several nations before the beginning of this century. The fact that they were adopted by very few major military powers, and even by those users were not considered fully successful in the test of World War II, need not prevent renewed consideration of small bores under requirements of the present.”

Colt AR-15 SporterThough the NRA and some in the U.S. military were still somewhat critical of a “varmint round” being used by the U.S. military, as other tests moved forward the AR-15 got traction. In 1963 the U.S. military finally ordered 85,000 AR-15s for the Army and 19,000 for the Air Force.[2] On July 1, 1964 the U.S. military ceased production of the M14. Soon the full-auto military version of the AR-15 was dubbed the M16. It would become the iconic gun of the Vietnam War.

Colt had already begun selling semiautomatic AR-15s to U.S. consumers in 1963. The November 1964 issue of American Rifleman reported, “A semi-automatic model of the Colt AR-15 cal. .223 (5.56 mm.) automatic rifle is now offered by Colt’s. Designated Colt AR-15 Sporter, it is made for semi-automatic use only, its magazine has a removable spacer which limits capacity to 5 rounds, and its bolt carrier assembly has a Parco-Lubrite finish. In other respects, it is the same as the AR-15 automatic military rifle produced by Colt’s for the Army and Air Force.”

The article further explained, “Design of this sporter is such that parts required for fully-automatic fire cannot be installed, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Div., Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Treasury Dept., does not consider the rifle a ‘Firearm’ in the machine gun category.”

Becoming America’s Rifle

Fast forward a half-century and we find American gun enthusiasts in a modern sporting rifle craze. According to the research firm Southwick Associates, Inc., in 2012 one in five rifles sold was chambered in .223—most of these are AR-15-type rifles. Today the AR-15 and its variations are manufactured by a long and growing list of companies. Modern sporting rifles are popular with civilians and law enforcement around the world because they’re accurate, light, portable and modular. More than 16 million were sold to the American public by 2018, making them one of the most commonly-owned firearms in America. Its design also allows it to be accessorized. A civilian can buy after-market sights, vertical forward grips, lighting systems, laser-targeting devices, muzzle brakes, bipods and more. In this way this rifle platform is more versatile than any other rifle. It’s also easy to shoot and has little recoil, making it popular with women and beginners in the recreational shooting sports.

Given American history, and history of the modern sporting rifle, politicians who say the AR-15 is a “weapon of war” civilians shouldn’t be allowed to own are ignorant of our history or are lying. Historically, Americans have always owned similar gun types to those used in the military. Besides, the semiautomatic modern sporting rifles sold to civilians are internally different from the full-automatic M16. Sure they look similar, but their hammer and trigger mechanisms are different designs. The bolt carrier and internal lower receiver of semiautomatic versions are even milled differently so that their firing mechanisms can’t be interchanged.


[1] “The Armalite AR-15 Rifle,” American Rifleman, June 1959.
[2] Alexander Rose, American Rifle, Delacorte Press, 2008.